Local people: Robert Loomes
24th August 2020
Stamfordian clockmaker Robert Loomes recently became Chairman of the British Horological Institute. Nicholas Rudd-Jones went to meet him at its headquarters
The British Horological Institute (BHI) is housed in a stunning Palladian house in Upton, just the other side of Newark. The story goes that it was swapped 50 years ago for their old home in Northampton Square in London. Upton Hall is central, provides great classroom space, and is also home to the Museum of Timekeeping.
So how did the BHI come about?
‘The BHI started in 1858 in London as clock- and watchmakers sought to formalise what had until then been a very secretive art, passed on from master to apprentice. Very quickly they developed a series of diplomas (the foundation of what we still teach today), which ultimately led to the professional membership grades of Member (MBHI) or Fellow (FBHI). Taught as a Distance Learning Course, with short residential classes at Upton, the course can be completed in three years, though many spread it through their early career. I had been working full time with clocks and watches for 12 years before I qualified.
‘The BHI is one of the most respected horological institutes in the world, with over 2,000 members; it is on the top table along with those of the USA and Switzerland. What it is especially noted for is that it allows you to fix any watch, as it’s completely independent of any watch-making company and works from first principles.’
And what does Upton Hall comprise of?
‘Upton Hall houses a couple of classrooms – one for watchmaking and one for clockmaking. Our tutors are some of the best in Britain. We run examinations every summer in theory, practical and a portfolio of completed repairs or restoration. Significant weight these days is given to the matter of repair, restoration and conservation, and a BHI qualification is required for restorers wanting membership of ICON, the Institute of Conservation. Our watch-servicing classes usually run full.
‘As well as providing the training for watch servicing, it also provides an excellent training in watch making. All the independent British watchmaking firms, including ourselves, Bremont and Christopher Ward, send their staff to the BHI for their training. All the Loomes watchmakers in Stamford have been BHI trained.
‘In the years I have worked in Stamford, we have helped five staff to MBHI. Each has gone on to open their own successful businesses or join established partnerships, either in Britain or overseas, and some are now training their own staff through the BHI. It is a very rewarding feeling.
‘The full training to Fellowship is holistic. Students are examined on how to measure, draw and manufacture almost every possible component for a watch or clock – as one might for a rare 1930s’ watch with a broken or missing component. No other watchmaker training has such a broad curriculum, which is why many well-known Swiss firms employ BHI-trained staff in their research and prototyping workshops.
‘The BHI is also rolling out a new Trailblazer Apprenticeship scheme for watchmaking. This two-year, level three apprenticeship teaches the servicing of quartz, manual and automatic watches. There is significant demand for watch technicians, and this new scheme, again with short block release training at Upton Hall, will train the next generation of watchmakers.
‘The Institute is open to everyone. All members receive the monthly Horological Journal, which contains a wealth of both practical and historical information on watch- and clockmaking past and present. All members are encouraged to learn, to attend lectures and, if possible, to start the Distance Learning Course, but none is compulsory. Some simply enjoy the magazine and an occasional trip to the Museum.
‘And the Build Your Own Watch Courses have also proved very popular and are running full at the moment. This brings the enthusiast into the world of watches in a new and exciting way.’
And tell me about the Museum of Timekeeping that is also on site?
‘The Museum of Timekeeping is an award-winning exhibition of clocks and watches from the Middle Ages to the present day. Alongside domestic clocks and watches it also has high-precision clocks from the last 350 years, even including every version of the “Speaking Clock” telephone service and one of the Greenwich Time Signal clocks, which provided the pips for radio time signals. The first voice of the speaking clock was chosen, X-Factor like, from thousands, and the attractive Ethel Cain became one of the most famous women of her time in Britain.’
I enjoyed looking at the Isaac Newton water clock and the watch worn by Captain Scott on his ill-fated polar expedition of 1912.
What most excites you about being Chairman?
‘The thought of the unbroken passing of knowledge from generation to generation. The BHI is a vital part in that process.’
The Museum of Timekeeping is closed for a major refurbishment of its watch collection and will re-open in 2021.